Lemieux shakes off adversity, looks to return for playoffs


PITTSBURGH -- Speaking in his characteristically dispassionate voice and showing no outward sign of distress, hockey great Mario Lemieux discussed his battle with a life-threatening disease before a packed news conference yesterday morning.

Lemieux, who learned he had a form of Hodgkin's disease on Monday, said yesterday: "I've faced a lot of adversity in my life and always come out on top. That's what I expect with this."

Lemieux, 28, led the Pittsburgh Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup championships the past two seasons and was far ahead in the NHL scoring race when he was sidelined two weeks ago because of periodic back pain. It was during this time that an enlarged lymph node was discovered in his neck, which was subsequently removed.

According to his doctors, Lemieux's form of the disease -- nodular lymphocytic -- was diagnosed in an early stage, which greatly enhances his chances of recovery. The cure rate for the disease is greater than 90 percent, doctors said.

"The prognosis is excellent," said Dr. Charles Burke, the Penguins' team physician. "And the chance for future re-occurrence is uncommon. It's certainly not life- or career-threatening."

Exactly when Lemieux will be able to resume his hockey career is uncertain, however. He will spend two weeks recovering from a lung infection and then will begin four weeks of radiation treatments. The treatments will be given five days per week for four weeks.

How quickly Lemieux can regain strength after such treatments is unknown. The NHL regular season has nine weeks remaining.

"I should be there for the playoffs," said Lemieux, "and we'll give it a good run."

"There may be side effects," said Dr. Ted Crandall, a cancer specialist treating Lemieux. "The fatigue-ability is difficult to judge beforehand."

Hockey concerns, however, were of less importance yesterday. "The most important thing is your health," said Lemieux. "Everything after that is secondary."

Lemieux admitted to crying quite a bit Monday, the day he learned of the diagnosis, but his downbeat attitude did not last long.

"I'm a positive person by nature. That's not going to change," he said. "It is scary. Every time you hear the word 'cancer,' it's scary. But the more I found out about the disease, the better I felt."

On Wednesday, Lemieux met with his teammates, who lead the Patrick Division by 12 points and have the NHL's best record.

"We're definitely feeling for Mario," said Penguins coach Scotty Bowman, whose team lost to the Boston Bruins, 7-0, on Thursday night. "We're feeling for him as a person. I don't think anyone's concerned about the hockey particularly."

Lemieux's agent, Tom Reich, said, "He has had quite a few physical setbacks the last few years. And he has constantly shown the ability to battle back and accomplish more each time. Mario is extraordinary. Throughout this, we have gained strength from him, rather than vice versa."

The Penguins said that Lemieux will not be available for interviews during his treatment period.

"Please respect Mario's right to total privacy," said Howard Baldwin, team owner.

Lemieux understood, however, that his disease has become a matter of public concern.

"This has been on my mind every day," said Lemieux. "It's all brand new to me. But as the weeks progress, I'm coping with it better."

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